Guest column

Want to protect Wyoming’s public lands? Support tax reform

By Nate Martin
Posted 7/30/19

Wyoming residents don’t pay much in taxes.

According to the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, the average Wyomingite receives about $27,000 a year in public services while paying only $3,000 in …

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Guest column

Want to protect Wyoming’s public lands? Support tax reform

Posted

Wyoming residents don’t pay much in taxes.

According to the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, the average Wyomingite receives about $27,000 a year in public services while paying only $3,000 in taxes. Mineral industries cover the rest of our costs.

Getting tens of thousands of dollars a year in public services without paying for them might seem like a pretty sweet “free ride.” Thanks, mining industries!

But the ride isn’t really free. Wyoming’s dependence on mineral tax revenues puts our culture, economy and future at risk. It forces state lawmakers and officials to rely upon mining activities that harm our public lands, wildlife, and climate.

If Wyoming wants to protect its public lands, ensure the survival of our great herds, and do its part to address global warming, we’re going to have to kick our mineral tax addiction.

Tax revenues from oil, gas, and coal cover up to 60 percent of the state’s budget. They largely pay for Wyoming’s schools, hospitals, roads and other public services and infrastructure.

In fact, Wyoming gets so much money from mineral taxes that we have about the lowest tax rates in the nation in every other category — no personal or corporate income tax, low property and sales tax, no “wealth taxes” on things like estates or capital gains and low taxes on products like tobacco and beer.

With few other major sources of funding, Wyoming lawmakers are highly motivated to support mineral developers, even as they ruin hunting territory, pollute waterways, endanger wildlife, and spew carbon into the atmosphere.

State officials regularly influence the projects that target our federal minerals and lands. Wyoming government representatives work with federal partners to determine which parcels of land to lease, how far apart to space wells, and where companies can dispose of wastewater, among other considerations.

Mining lobbyists love reminding Wyoming officials who “pay the bills” for the state. And they get a nice return on their investment. In exchange for funding our government, mining companies can count on Wyoming officials for lax leasing restrictions, environmental deregulation and even efforts to transfer federal public lands to the state.

Even state agencies tasked with protecting Wyoming’s wildlife are under pressure from lawmakers to allow as much drilling or digging as possible, simply because of the revenue it brings in. This explains why state officials have agreed to green-light projects that threaten Wyoming’s irreplaceable mule deer migration corridors, critical winter range, and some of the nation’s last great expanses of intact sage grouse habitat.

Meanwhile, because the state’s biggest cash cows are carbon-based, most Wyoming lawmakers decline to acknowledge climate change, despite wide consensus from the global scientific community, federal agencies, and the marketplace.

Some Wyoming lawmakers even go so far as to restrict development of renewable energy because they view it as competition to traditional carbon-based products. This is despite the fact that the renewable energy industries have potential to create high-paying jobs and clean power.

Others acknowledge the marketplace’s turn away from carbon-based energy, but neglect to plan for renewable energy development. That means huge projects like utility-scale wind farms are thrown up with little planning or oversight and further harm our landscapes and wildlife.

While most people aren’t involved in day-to-day politics, mining special interests are on the phone regularly with state lawmakers, checking in on their “investments.” Their voices — not those of average Wyomingites — influence our elected representatives.

Wyoming’s dependence on mineral taxes will continue unless people begin to speak louder than lobbyists and demand that lawmakers create new, non-mineral revenues to fund state operations.

There are many options for new revenues, including options that can spare hard-working Wyomingites from dramatically increased tax burdens. Revenue can come from Wyoming’s ultra-wealthy “one percent,” corporate income tax on huge companies (that would pay here and write off the costs elsewhere) and removing unhelpful sales tax exemptions that do not stimulate growth.

Any of these new forms of revenue would decrease Wyoming’s dependence on mineral taxes, protecting our public lands and wildlife.

Wyoming’s economic future depends on the legacy of access, open space, and wildlife. Across the West, communities are reinventing their economies around the high quality of life provided by access to public lands.

Public lands help attract the talented people we need to diversify our economy and move Wyoming toward the future.

But this will be impossible if the state’s dependence on mineral taxes forces lawmakers to continue to put our public lands, wildlife, and climate at risk.

 

(Nate Martin is the director of Better Wyoming, a communications and advocacy hub for progressive politics in the state. He lives in Laramie.)

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